Although some people talk about ‘a British drinking culture’ the reality is of course that people in the UK drink in different ways. Below is an overview of some of the key stats that describe the variation in people’s drinking patterns.
How many people don’t drink alcohol?
In 2016, 19% of adults aged 16 and over in England said that they had not consumed alcohol in the last year or said that they are a non-drinker.1
How many people abstain from alcohol?
In England in 2016, 17% of men and 22% of women said that they had not drunk any alcohol in the last year.2
How much do people drink?
In 2016 in England, 53% of men said that they had drunk in the last year and that their average weekly alcohol consumption was no more than 14 units.3
62% of women in England said that they had drunk in the last year and that their average weekly intake was no more than 14 units.4
In 2016, 10% of men and 7% of women in England said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 14 units but no more than 21 units.5
In 2016 in England, 12% of men and 6% of women said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 21 units but no more than 35 units.6
In 2016, 4% of men and 2% of women in England said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 35 units but no more than 50 units.7
In 2016 in England, 5% of men and 2% of women said that their average weekly alcohol consumption was more than 50 units.8
People who drank in the last week
In 2017, 57% of adults (people aged 16 and over) in Great Britain said they drank alcohol at least once in the week before being interviewed.9 Between 2005 and 2017 the proportion of men who drank alcohol in the week before being interviewed fell from 72% to 62%, and the proportion of women fell from 57% to 52%.10
In 2017, among men in Great Britain who had drunk alcohol in the last week, 22% had consumed between 4-8 units on their heaviest drinking day and further 29% drank more than 8 units on on their heaviest drinking day in the last week.11
Of women in Great Britain who consumed alcohol in last week in 2017, 26% consumed between 4 – 6 units on their heaviest drinking day and 26% drank more than 6 units on their heaviest drinking day.12
In 2017, among those who had drink alcohol 27% were classed as binge drinkers in the week before being interviewed. That is 16% of all adults aged 16 or over in Great Britain. For men this was defined as eight units or more on the heaviest drinking day and six units or more for women.13
Between 2005 and 2017 in Great Britain, there was a fall in the proportion of men who were frequent drinkers (those who drank alcohol on at least five days in the week before being interviewed) from 22% to 12%, and in the proportion of women who did so from 13% to 8%.14
Older vs. younger drinkers – frequent vs heavy
Drinkers aged 65+ years drink more frequently than any other group but young people drink more units on a single occasion.15 In 2017, people aged 65 and over in Great Britain were more likely than any other age group to have drunk alcohol on 5 or more days in the previous week (21% of men and 13% of women) compared to 1% of men and 2% women aged 16 to 24.16
In 2017, 48% of people aged 16-24 had consumed alcohol in the past week compared with 55% of those aged 65 and over.17 In 2017, of those young people aged 16 to 24 in Great Britain who drank in the last week, 33% of men and 27% of women drank more than 12 and 9 units respectively on their heaviest drinking day– meaning that 30% of all drinkers in that age group drank at this level. Of those aged 65 and over who drank in the last week, 6% of men and 3% of women drank more than 12 and 9 units respectively on their heaviest drinking day meaning that 4% of all drinkers in this age group drank at the level.18
How many people are drinking to harmful levels?
There are two ways to measure harmful levels of drinking: the total amount of alcohol consumed as measured in alcohol units (indicating the risk of alcohol-related health harm) and a wider assessment of the extent to which drinking is causing problems (based on the AUDIT assessment tool).
In terms of the unit amount, the UK Chief Medical Officer recommends that men and women should not regularly (defined as most weeks) drink more than 14 units a week. Drinking at this level is considered to be 'low risk', and adults who regularly drink up to this amount are advised to spread their drinking over three or more days. Above this level is considered to be 'increased risk'. The more you drink above this level, the higher the risk. Whilst the low risk guidelines are the same for men and women, it is important to be aware that drinking at a higher level (beyond the low risk guidelines) more quickly causes severe health problem to women. See alcohol and gender.
The prevalence of increased risk drinking in England in 2016 was 26% of men and 12% of women. This included 5% of men and 3% of women whose drinking could be categorised as 'higher risk' (defined as over 35 units for women and over 50 units for men). For men and women, the highest prevalence of people drinking above the low risk guidance was in 55 to 64 year olds. Almost a third (30%) of this age group drink more than 14 units a week.19
In terms of the full AUDIT measurement, hazardous drinking is defined by the AUDIT alcohol use assessment tool as a drinking pattern that will likely bring the person to some harm because of alcohol – whether physical, mental, or social. Harmful drinking denotes the most dangerous use of alcohol, at which damage to health is likely.
The prevalence of hazardous drinking in England in 2014 was 16.6%. This included 1.9% of adults whose drinking could be categorised as harmful or mildly dependent, and 1.2% of adults who were probably dependent drinkers. In men, the highest prevalence of harmful, mildly dependent and probably dependent drinking was in 25 to 34 year olds, and for women drinking at this level, it was in 16 to 24 year olds.20
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Family Food 2015 report examines how much households spend on food and drink for the household (household spending) and that consumed outside the home. In real terms, between 2012 and 2015, household spending on alcoholic drinks increased by 0.3%. Spending on alcohol bought for consumption outside of the home increased by 1.5%.21
In 2016, alcohol was nearly 60% more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980 and 2% more affordable since 2005, highlighting the overall trend of increasing affordability over the period. ‘Affordability’ is the price of alcohol relative to adults’ disposable income (base year 1980).22
It is estimated that in the UK in 2017, the average weekly household spend on alcohol consumed in the home was £8.20, while £7.90 was spent on alcohol consumed outside the home.23
Where do people drink?
In 2016, 31.9% of all alcohol (by volume of pure alcohol) was sold in the ‘on-trade’; that is licensed premises like pubs, bars and restaurants. This has decreased from nearly half (47%) of alcohol sold in the on-trade in 2000. People in the UK have shown a shifting preference to purchasing alcohol in the off-trade (for example from supermarkets and shops) to consume at home.24
Despite this, and the significant decline in the number of pubs in the UK (down from 60,1000 in 2002 to 50,300 in 2016), the total number of licensed premises (including off-licenses, pubs, bars, clubs, hotels, restaurants) in the UK has increased by 5.1% since 2000.25
What do people like to drink?
Since 1990, consumers in the UK have shown a shifting preference from beer to wine, though consumption of beer still makes up the biggest percentage share between types of drinks based on pure alcohol content; beer (35.8%), wine (32.5%), spirits (22.7%), cider (6.7%) and ‘ready-to-drink’ beverages such as ‘alcopops’ (2.4%). The market share of RDTs has doubled since 2009, due to the growth of fruit-flavoured ciders.26
The majority of men in 2017 (16+ in the GB) who had drunk alcohol in the last week, but had not binged, had drunk normal strength beer, stout, lager or cider (56%); almost a third had drunk wine (31%), and just under a sixth had drunk spirits (16%). In contrast, the majority of women had drunk wine or champagne (60%); almost a quarter had drunk spirits (23%), and just under a sixth had drunk normal strength beer, stout, lager or cider (16%).27
Alcohol and calories
For adults aged 19 to 64 in the UK (who completed a diary of drink and food consumption over four consecutive days), alcohol provided on average 8.4% of their energy intake.28
Of the constituent countries, in 2017 England had the statistically significantly highest proportion of people who said they drank alcohol in the previous week (58%); this was followed by Scotland (53%) and then Wales (50%).29
Of the English regions, 6 in 10 people (61%) in the South West and South East drank in the previous week, the highest proportion among all English regions. Just over half of people in London and the North East said they drank in the previous week (55%), the lowest of all the regions.30
When looking at drinkers who “binged” on their heaviest drinking day in the last week, of the constituent countries of Great Britain excessive drinking was more common in Scotland (37%), followed by Wales (30%) and then England (26%). These differences were all found to be statistically significant.
Of the English regions, 33% of drinkers in the North West “binged” on their heaviest drinking day; with the exception of Yorkshire and the Humber (32%), this proportion is statistically significantly higher than all other regions of England.31
Reported alcohol consumption based on surveys that ask people how much and how often they drink typically amounts to 40%-60% of total alcohol sales in studies conducted internationally. This was roughly confirmed for consumption in England in a 2013 study by University College London and Health Survey for England.32
But asking about ‘the typical drinking’ risks missing the drinking that takes place on special occasions. In a recent study researchers asked people about special drinking periods (e.g. holidays) and events (e.g. weddings). They found that accounting for atypical or special occasion drinking added over 120 million units of alcohol per week to population consumption.33